March 23, 2016      

Research into self-driving cars is gathering pace in the U.K. — and a growing number of institutions and companies across the country are now actively working on the next generation of autonomous vehicles.

The sector received a further boost last month, when the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills (BIS) awarded just over £17 million ($24 million) to partly fund eight research and development projects under Innovate UK’s Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAV) competition.

The agency said the funding will enable industry heavy hitters such as Jaguar Land Rover Ltd. and Siemens AG to work alongside university research teams and startups like Gobotix Ltd. and Improbable to develop the “wide variety of digital and physical technologies that will be needed to supported driverless transport systems of the future.”

One interesting scheme is the UK Connected Intelligent Transport Environment (UKCITE), which plans to establish a state-of-the-art test environment for connected and autonomous vehicles on major roads across the Coventry and Solihull area. The £5.6 million ($7.9 million) project will include 66 km (41 miles) of roads and include sensors and wireless hotspots. It has received £3.4 million ($4.8 million) in government funding.

Ultra Pods at Heathrow Airport

Heathrow Airport’s Ultra pods are the basis for Insight’s self-driving car research.

In addition, the Insight project will adapt and develop the Ultra pods currently used at Heathrow Airport as part of the GATEway driverless car project in Greenwich, London.

Creating a configurable driving simulator

Another initiative funded under the CAV program is the Innovative Testing of Autonomous Control Techniques (INTACT) project. Under it, the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) at the University of Warwick will collaborate with Coventry-based RDM Group.

RDM (Richmond Design & Marketing Ltd.) is the U.K.’s only designer and manufacturer of driverless pods. It is also a key partner in the recently announced £20 million ($28.24 million) UK Autodrive consortium, which is testing autonomous vehicles on one of the world’s most adaptable and advanced driver-in-the-loop, multi-axis driving simulators (see image above).

That project includes the first-ever “immersive, simulated environment for smart and connected vehicles,” according to Paul Jennings, a professor of energy and electrical systems at WMG. He added that it will be used to recreate a “real-world wireless environment” and be configurable to test different vehicles.

“It is fantastic that we have such advanced simulation technology at our disposal to analyze how driverless vehicles will react before being deployed in the real world,” Jennings said. “It will speed up the testing process considerably and help with the positioning of the sensors on the pods.”

“[This is] yet another example of how university and industry can work together to put the region and the country at the forefront of driverless technology,” added David Keene, chairman of RDM Group.

Driverless cars could benefit British industry

Jennings claimed that driverless cars can ultimately bring benefits to everyone — “particularly in view of the fact that many of us like to be independent when travelling and prefer our journeys to be cheaper, more convenient, more comfortable, and safe.”

He also argued that autonomous vehicles will bolster opportunities to improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions, as well as help the average driver to regain the 235 hours each year spent behind the wheel.

“These are all societal benefits, but it’s also important that we back U.K. industry and help our companies take advantage of the opportunities arising from the introduction of new technologies and business models,” said Jennings.

“The government is being proactive in supporting our industry — research funding has been announced, and there is proactive support for trials of the technology,” he said. “WMG is working actively with a range of industry partners to help them successfully introduce the new technology and overcome any potential challenges and threats.”

The CAV awards are part of the £100 million ($141 million) that the British government has in its Intelligent Mobility Fund. The U.K. hopes to keep up with R&D in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands, as well as in the U.S. and Japan. In particular, WMG is developing methods to evaluate whether the technology is safe, secure, and robust.

Autonomous vehicles must also “provide a positive driving experience designed for a range of users — public acceptance is vital,” Jennings added.